Senators want more timber sales to protect urban areas

Stage Hill Fire
Stage Hill Fire near Cascade, SD, June 16, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

The six US Senators in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota have signed a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recommending an increase in the number of timber sales on national forests in areas prone to wildfires. In the letter dated November 8 the senators said overgrown forests, drought, vast stretches of trees killed by beetles, and more people living in fire zones have left the West at a critical juncture. They urged the US Forest Service to conduct more forest thinning near critical infrastructure and in areas where urban areas are up against forests.

The letter was signed by Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado; Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming; and Tim Johnson and John Thune of South Dakota.

Two men charged with starting 5,500-acre fire using exploding targets

Two men have been charged with starting the Dump Fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate.

Investigators say the men were shooting on June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in nearby vegetation. Identified as 37-year-old Kenneth Nielsen of Washington, Utah, and 42-year-old Jeffrey Conant of Woodinville, Washington, they were charged with misdemeanor reckless burning and using prohibited targets,

We first wrote about the surge in popularity of exploding targets and the increasing number of wildfires caused by these devices on October 11, 2012. In that article we listed 21 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

Car destroyed by exploding target
Car destroyed by exploding target. Credit

These devices are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

Most of the wildfire community is only beginning to learn of of this disturbing trend.

Laws regulating the devices vary from state to state. CAL FIRE investigator Capt. Gregory Ewing, issued a safety bulletin following a June, 2012 fire in Riverside County that was started by exploding targets. He suggested that users of the targets could be charged with multiple felonies.

Possessing it with the intent to mix the two parts (thus creating an explosive) is a felony. Actually mixing the two parts is also a felony, and detonating it is yet another.

John N. Maclean, the author of several books about wildfires, in an October 18 OP-ED article on the New York Times’ web site, wrote about penalties that have been assessed against arsonists and others who have started wildfires. He briefly mentioned exploding targets:

Some practice shooters fire at exploding targets — store-bought canisters that blow up when pierced by a bullet. These are largely legal, but they should be banned immediately.

I agree with Mr. Maclean. It is ridiculous that these incendiary devices which have been demonstrated to be extremely dangerous in the hands of the average shooter, are legal. They should not only be illegal to transport after the two chemicals have been mixed, the kits to assemble them should not be legal to sell or possess.

Specific legislation is needed so that a person starting a fire with an exploding target can be charged with a crime that is more punitive than misdemeanor reckless burning or using prohibited targets, as was the case in the brain dead shooters that started the $2.1 million Dump Fire.

Federal wildland fire programs could be cut by $218M in January

If Congress allows the Budget Control Act of 2011, which has been called the “fiscal cliff”, to go into effect on January 2, 2013 the federal wildland fire programs will be cut by $218 million.

In addition, the FLAME wildfire suppression reserve fund will be cut by 8.2 percent, meaning it would not be funded at the 10-year average, greatly increasing the risk of funding shortfalls, as occurred in fiscal year 2012 which ended September 30. Such a shortfall would impact more than just the fire programs. With no carryover funds and a cut in the FLAME reserve fund, the wildland fire agencies in the Departments of Interior and Agriculture would need to take funds from other accounts to make up the firefighting shortfall.

Under the Budget Control Act, the sequestration would result in a 9.4 percent reduction in non-exempt defense discretionary funding and an 8.2 percent reduction in non-exempt nondefense discretionary funding. The sequestration would also impose cuts of 2.0 percent to Medicare, 7.6 percent to other non-exempt nondefense mandatory programs, and 10.0 percent to non-exempt defense mandatory programs.

Most of the federal wildland fire appropriations will be subject to an 8.2 percent reduction since they are considered “discretionary”.

A report, prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), revealed the following cuts to wildland fire budgets that will be effective January 2, 2013; the numbers do not include the FLAME fire suppression accounts:

  • US Forest Service Wildland Fire Management: $172 million
  • Department of Interior Wildland Fire Management: $46 million

The OMB report said the major budget reductions were never intended to be implemented, and were supposed to to drive both political parties to reach a compromise on more sane budget cuts. The OMB said: “The Administration strongly believes that sequestration is bad policy, and that Congress can and should take action to avoid it by passing a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package.”

At a meeting on forest health Friday in Denver, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “If Congress fails to act before the end of the year, the sequester that Congress has triggered will go into effect. That will result in every line item of virtually every aspect of USDA being cut by at least 8.2%, that’s every line item, no ability to transfer or prioritize the cuts.”

Wildfire news, October 8, 2012

White Draw fire
White Draw fire, Black Hills of South Dakota, July 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

U.S. Forest Service ran out of money for fires

Because the federal government only appropriates funds for firefighting based on a 10-year average, and with this year having more than the average number of fires, the U.S. Forest Service ran out of money. The agency had to take funds from other accounts to continue to suppress fires. Congress dealt with the issue, providing $400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution.

The Washington Post has a straight forward article on the subject, and if you like a little commentary thrown in, you can check out how FireDogLake reported the story.

Air tanker company busier than usual

And speaking of more fires than average, New Frontier Aviation which operates single engine air tankers, has been much busier this summer than in an average fire season. Andy Taylor, the owner of the company told a reporter for the Capitol Journal, that the last time he remembers a fire season being this busy was in 2006.

Nebraska official says better forest management could have lessened impacts of recent fires

A District Forester for the Nebraska Forest Service said better forest management could have lessened the adverse impacts of some of the recent fires that burned forest lands in the northwest part of the state. In the article attributed to the Associated Press, Chadron based District Forester Doak Nickerson suggested that land owners could concentrate more on “active management, a term that includes activities such as logging, grazing, thinning out diseased and insect-infested trees, and purposely setting controlled fires to clear brush that can feed a fire”.

Interestingly, the article was published by many organizations around the country with a misleading headline reading “Logging Could Have Eased Neb. Fires”, found on The Weather Channel, the Scotts Bluff Star Herald, and My San Antonio. To their credit, The Republic, an Indiana publication, had the following headline: “Official says Nebraska forest struck by wildfire was overgrown, could have been better managed”.

The Associated Press probably distributed the article with the suggested headline about logging, but The Republic must have actually read the article and composed a headline that more accurately reflected what the District Forester was reported as saying in the article. Good work by The Republic.

Federal wildfire funding has been cut 15% since 2010

Average size wildfires, 1961-2011
Average size of wildfires, 1961-2011. Source: NIFC and Wildfire Today (click to enlarge)

The media frequently reports on wildfire-related events that are exciting, such as big flames, hundreds of burned homes, and thousands of evacuated residents. but an under-reported aspect of wildfire management is the effects of reductions in funding. Every time Congress passes and the President signs a bill that reduces funding for fire suppression, fuel management, and fire prevention, there are proportional effects that ripple throughout the federal land management agencies. It appears that the chickens have come home to roost as we have fewer federal wildland firefighters, fewer staffed engines, and an air tanker fleet that has been reduced from 44 in 2002 to the 9 exclusive use large air tankers that are currently working under contract.

As we lose the ability to aggressively attack new fires with overwhelming force, more fires become mega-expensive conflagrations that cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to attempt to put out. A relatively small upfront expense for ground and air resources arriving within the first 30 minutes can be very cost effective when the fire is put out and everyone one goes back to the fire station to prepare for the next one.

I don’t want to hear any more congressmen complain about the lack of federal resources, or show up in a constituent’s home to listen to them complain about how the federal government fights fire, without them also committing to fixing the funding problem. They control the purse strings.

Wildfire budgets cut by 15% since 2010

A reporter for The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote a very interesting article about the declining firefighting budgets. The Guardian, of course, is a UK-based newspaper. Sometimes we need a fresh perspective of something that has been right in front of us. We mentioned Ms. Goldenberg’s article on June 1, but this under-reported story bears repeating. Here is an excerpt:

A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.

It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.

But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.

Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.

Campaigners say that leaves the federal government agencies responsible for preventing and putting out wildfires under-funded – especially given projections suggesting a rise in wildfires over the next 20 years.

They also worry the government agencies responsible for fire protection are putting capital projects on hold – such as updating its fleet of air tankers.

Legislation introduced to double the number of military MAFFS air tankers and restrict the use of foreign air tankers

MAFFS II unit being transported on a carrier, ready for installation in a C-130J

Proposal to reactivate old MAFFS units

A California congressman has introduced legislation requiring that the eight old, first generation Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS), which can be used as needed in military C-130H aircraft to fight wildfires, be made available to units of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The eight older MAFFS were replaced by nine second generation MAFFS II units within the last four years and the old units can’t be used in the more modern C-130J aircraft. The C-130Hs still in service are being targeted as potential air tankers by Representative Elton Gallegly from California who introduced the bill.

MAFFS air tankers are supposed to be activated only if all of the privately owned air tankers on federal contracts are committed. None of the eight military MAFFS have been used yet this year.

MAFFS C-130  Las Conchas 6-27
MAFFS C-130J makes a drop on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, 6-27-2011. Photo: Jayson Coil

Currently eight of the nine new MAFFS II units are assigned and available to be used in C-130Js at bases in California, Wyoming, Colorado, and North Carolina. Representative Gallegly’s bill, H.R.5965, would require that the one spare MAFFS II and the eight first generation MAFFS that are in storage be made available and ready for activation if needed for wildfire suppression. That would increase the numbers of MAFFS air tankers to 17.

There is at least one obstacle that would have to be overcome in order to implement the Representative’s proposal. The military has indicated that they are not interested in expanding their role in suppressing wildfires. According to the Conference Chairman’s Report from the Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Washington, D.C. in 2011, Lt. Col. Bryan Allen of the Air National Guard said that given the nation’s operational tempo, he would not be comfortable with extending this role for what are essentially warfighting assets. And Clark R. Lystra of the Office of Secretary of Defense reported that an increase in the use of military assets to combat wildland fires had been rejected by the Department.

If you want to know more about the MAFFS II units, we covered the details in an article we wrote in 2009.

Restrict the use of air tankers from a foreign government

The proposed legislation has an additional requirement:

The Chief of the Forest Service may not procure air tankers to fight wildfires from a foreign government unless the Chief of the Forest Service certifies to Congress that MAFFS air tanker support available from units of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve is being fully utilized or is not sufficient to address wildfires on National Forest System land.

On June 6 the U.S. Forest Service announced that that they had arranged to temporarily hire a CV-580 air tanker from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. At that time the  two DC-10 air tankers based in California that carry five times more retardant than the CV-580s were not hired. Then on June 11 the USFS announced that they had activated on a call when needed contract (CWN) one of the two American-based DC-10s and also borrowed three more Canadian CV-580s. The USFS currently does not have a contract with Evergreen’s American-based 747 air tanker that carries 10 times more retardant than a CV-580.

A Canadian-owned, UK-built air tanker is being used today on fires in the United States. Missoula-based Neptune Aviation is leasing a BAe-146 from Tronos, the Canadian company that converted the airliner into an air tanker. Neptune has been awarded a contract for two more BAe-146s and expects to bring them on later this year. Aero Flite of Kingman, Arizona was also awarded a contract recently, for one air tanker, and is partnering with Conair of Abbotsford, British Columbia to convert an RJ85, which is similar to a BAe-146.

Status of the proposed legislation

The bill has only been introduced and has seen no action other than being referred to the House Committee on Agriculture.